The Disillusioned Obama Young Voter Posted on March 27, 2012 | Focus Group

As part of our Target Voter Series, Resurgent Republic sponsored four focus groups among Generation-Y voters ages 23 to 30 in Raleigh, North Carolina and Columbus, Ohio. These voters self-identified as Independents, voted for President Obama in 2008, but are undecided on the generic presidential ballot today. Conducted by The Tarrance Group, the focus groups were split between voters ages 23 to 26 (those in college or new to the workforce in 2008) and 27 to 30 years old (those beginning their professional career in 2008).

In 2008, President Obama won two-thirds of 18-to-29 year olds (66 to 32 percent). This was following President Bush’s 9-point disadvantage among this age group against John Kerry in 2004 (45 to 54 percent) and a near tie between President Bush and Al Gore in 2000 (46 to 48 percent). Despite President Obama’s strong performance in 2008, young voters today tend to be the most negative about the direction of the country. Indeed, recent public polling reports 68 percent of 18-to-29 year old voters think the country is headed on the wrong track – a higher percentage than supported Obama four years ago.1

President Obama and his team have indicated they are focused on re-energizing the youth vote in both of these states and others. If these groups are representative of this demographic at large, it will be a tall task to counter the disillusionment many feel due to a pattern of over-promising and under-delivering. It is important to note that young voters’ ongoing frustration does not mean they will outright abandon Obama, as was evident in the Ohio groups, but it should call into question their reliability to turnout for him this November barring any changes.

The different economic climates in Raleigh and Columbus were reflected in our discussions. Unemployment is 10.2 percent in North Carolina, nearly 2-points higher than the national average, while this measure has declined to 7.7 percent in Ohio, down from its 10.6 percent peak in early 2010.2 In addition, Ohio was ranked first in the Midwest for new job creation and eighth in the nation.3 This memo outlines the key similarities and differences between these groups and where they might intersect moving forward.

Key Similarities

Young voters, a group predominately inspired by the mantra "hope" and "change" in 2008, now view it as empty words. These focus groups reinforced the notion that “hope” and “change” meant a variety of different things to voters. It allowed people to perceive this Obama message to be whatever they personally decided. As a result, "hope" and "change" brought together coalitions of voters bonded by language that did not have a uniform meaning, setting up voters for a variety of letdowns. A cynicism now exists in how these young voters evaluate "inspirational" political rhetoric, regardless of the partisan label.

  1. These young voters were decidedly unhappy with the direction of the country. The perception that the country is headed on the "wrong track" is palpable among 23-to-30 year old voters, who used descriptors like "troubled," "on the decline," and "taking on water." A small number of respondents felt slightly more positive, but overall both groups were disheartened with the direction of the country, a stark contrast from where they thought the country would be today when compared to four years ago.
  2. Overall both young voter groups did not think the national economy is getting better. The awareness and personal observations of the economy as it relates to their own lives was somewhat different in North Carolina and Ohio. However, the view of the economy as a whole was unquestionably negative. One North Carolina respondent noted that "the current economic conditions are like a windfall: when one thing gets bad it has an impact on everything else." Another said, "The price of everything is going up, but paychecks are not." The Ohio respondents noted that jobs "do exist in Columbus" but were frustrated with the reality of working in occupations not related to their education level.
  3. "Underemployment" is a reality among these 23-to-30 year olds, and they aren’t happy about it. Underemployment is not just an arcane concept or a word talked about on the evening news. These voters are either personally experiencing what it means to be "underemployed" or are watching their friends and peers feel it. The respondents in Raleigh rattled off stories of those who have accepted lesser quality jobs in order to make ends meet or remained in graduate programs – described by one respondent as a "parking place" – in order to avoid the harsh realities of the job market. Several of the Columbus respondents called underemployment “the new normal.” In both states they said their own college degree is not being put to work, but rather they are heading to grocery stores, the service industry or manufacturing jobs in order to earn an income, with several highlighting the burden of their student loan payments as an additional weight on their economic fortune. Four years ago, "hope" and "change" bolstered their perception of the future. Yet today, many of these voters are not where they thought they would be.
  4. These voters were disillusioned with President Obama, and the discussion of "hope" and "change" triggered a cynical reaction. Their personal affinity for Obama combined with the credit they give him for trying are not enough to outweigh the disappointment they expressed. As one North Carolina voter said, President Obama "promised the moon and could not even deliver the upper atmosphere." Another Raleigh voter lamented, "We expected a lot more." The respondents in Columbus were somewhat less intense in their feedback, but still disappointed. One Buckeye State young voter offered a caveat that "there was so much hype it was impossible to live up to those standards."

  5. These young voters were troubled about the deficit and national debt and the future ramifications if left unaddressed. All four groups were particularly concerned about the growing national debt. There is an acceptance among these voters that the growing financial crisis will not "be solved by government," but it will be this generation of voters who will ultimately "pay the price." One North Carolina voter said spending and the deficit "will not solve our economic problems, but rather prolong the ability to head into a recovery." Both groups were supportive of looking for opportunities to make cuts in the Federal budget in order to reduce spending. Some differences of preferences for cuts do exist. The North Carolina voters suggest changes to entitlements, while Ohio voters were predominately focused on reforming unemployment benefits (a recurring theme) and spending less on national defense. The Ohio voters are particularly nonplused with the government’s tendency to "look for other places to take money from rather than finding places to make cuts."

Key Differences

  1. Despite both groups' disillusionment with President Obama, Ohio voters were less likely to blame him. The Raleigh respondents reported dissatisfaction with the performance of President Obama. One participant noted the President "talks a good game," but has failed to live up to the expectations he set for himself. The Columbus respondents were prone to search for excuses in regard to the President's job performance. Several suggested that perhaps President Obama was "naïve" in regard to the difficulties of working with Congress. Additionally, the Columbus voters suggested President Obama perhaps "needs more time," "although not a lot has been accomplished, he did enter the presidency with a lot of 'hopeful' ideas."
  2. North Carolina voters were substantially more skeptical of the national unemployment rate and believe it is higher than 8.3 percent. Ohio voters see the job growth in their city and state, and as a result think more jobs exist than what is reported. The Raleigh focus groups demonstrated a thorough understanding of "underemployment" and what the "real unemployment rate" is. One respondent even noted, "true unemployment is somewhere near 15 percent or 16 percent." A majority of the participants in Raleigh understood that the unemployment figures do not take into account those who have dropped out of the work force. The Columbus voters were more hesitant in accepting the unemployment statistics as "fact," and have a more positive impression of the employment environment. A point of focus in the Columbus groups was the referencing of friends and peers who collect unemployment compensation due to the easy access, and expressed frustration with those who game the system and don’t search for a job. This played into the broader theme of the Columbus findings, with these voters recognizing the growing job market at home.
  3. North Carolina voters feel the pinch of gasoline prices, while Ohio voters more focused on sources of alternative energy. When discussing the economy, the instinctive reaction among the North Carolina participants was to bring up the concern about the rising cost of gasoline. A North Carolina respondent cited the consequences of the economic conditions, noting that for many it is difficult to secure permanent employment as a result of the rising price of gasoline and car ownership, making it more costly to commute to-and-from work. Others in North Carolina suggested that while President Obama may "not be directly responsible for the rising gas prices, he will be the one to suffer the consequences." While they did acknowledge some pain at the pump, the Ohio voters were overwhelmingly more focused on finding alternative sources of energy. Some of these voters even suggested they were "comfortable" with rising gasoline prices if this meant more research for cleaner and safer methods of energy.

Moving Forward

  1. Rising gas prices could ultimately halt any sense of perceived economic growth. Despite the mixed responses toward rising gas prices in North Carolina versus Ohio, the effect on other pocketbook issues will create a toxic political environment among the youth vote. One of President Obama’s key voting blocs are those who are most laden with debt, such as school loans. These voters are encountering roadblocks in achieving professional growth, which is often an essential need in order to earn the means to pay off college and graduate school debts.
  2. Burned by "hope" and "change," these young voters need to see tangible results, or believe there's a substantive vision moving forward, to be re-energized come November. The discontent with the direction of the country and the economy ran deep in all four groups. These former "hope" and "change" voters feel let down by the failure of this Administration to meet the promises they perceived these words to mean. Because of their cognitive dissonance, President Obama is mentioned in the same conversation as "business as usual" politicians, a feeling completely foreign to what they perceived in 2008. These voters are both disillusioned with the typical practices of Washington, and are intent in their desire for a candidate who presents a solid plan backed with substantive change.


The Target Voter Series is a project of 24 focus groups among Obama Independents who are undecided on the generic presidential ballot. The focus groups are taking place in 11 battleground states among six key demographic groups (Suburban Women, Young Voters, Seniors, Independents, Hispanics, and Blue Collar Catholics). This is the second of six memos to be released in the series.

Raleigh, North Carolina
February 28, 2012
Voters Ages 23 to 26 / Voters Ages 27 to 30
Conducted by The Tarrance Group

Columbus, Ohio
March 13, 2012
Voters Ages 23 to 26 / Voters Ages 27 to 30
Conducted by The Tarrance Group


1GW-Politico Battleground Poll, fielded 2/19-22/12 among N=1,000 Likely Voters, Margin of Error + 3.1%.
2U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2012 Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) and February 2012 National Unemployment Rate.
3U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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